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How not to use tech in a pandemic - a timeline of the UK’s response

A timeline of UK government's tech response to coronavirus pandemic

coronavirus, technology, UK, politics

A timeline of the UK’s tech response to COVID-19

[please add missing events or developments][a]

By Frederike Kaltheuner (with input from Peter Wells and others)

Note: England, Scotland and Northern Ireland each have their own versions of the test-and-trace programme.


HSC - Health and Social Care is the publicly funded healthcare system in Northern Ireland, and one of the four systems which make up the National Health Service in the UK.

NHS - The National Health Service is the umbrella term for the publicly-funded healthcare systems of the UK.

NHS England - an executive non-departmental public body of the Department of Health and Social Care.

NHS Scotland (sometimes styled NHSScotland) - the publicly funded healthcare system in Scotland, and one of the four systems which make up the National Health Service in the UK

NHS Wales - the publicly funded healthcare system in Wales, and one of the four systems which make up the National Health Service in the UK.

NHS Digital - NHS Digital is an executive non-departmental public body, sponsored by the Department of Health and Social Care.

NHSX - a joint unit bringing together teams from the Department of Health and Social Care and NHS England and NHS Improvement to drive the digital transformation of care.

PHE - Public Health England is an executive agency of the Department of Health and Social Care in the United Kingdom


March 2020


Chief Number 10 advisor Dominic Cummings chairs meetings with technology CEOs and business leaders to help tackle Coronavirus. There were 40 attendees including representatives of big technology multinationals including Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Faculty, Palantir, Deliveroo and Babylon Health. Buzzfeed reported that “Their commitments would be assessed and followed up on by NHSX...which will now be coordinating technology responses across the whole system”.



NHS Digital’s board was told by chief executive Sarah Wilkinson that NHSX is working on a contact tracking app to trace the spread of coronavirus through the population.


At this point there is little detail in the public domain about who will build the app, how it will work, how its effectiveness will be monitored and who will provide oversight over its proportionality and compliance with fundamental rights. It is unclear how data will be collected and processed, whether there are strict legal limitations on the purposes for which this data can be used now and in the future, how and where it will be stored, for how long, and who will have access to this data, either now or in the future.


Media report that mobile phone data from O2, EE and BT is already being used to understand the movement of people. It is unclear what this data is and who has access to it.



In response to the lack of information about plans to build a contact tracing app, a number of experts from the UK responsible technology community write an open letter to the government, calling upon the NHSX leadership and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to ensure new technologies used in the suppression of Coronavirus follow ethical best practice



The government does not have the ability to send advice on coronavirus directly to Britons’ mobile phones, after repeatedly ignoring its own findings that an emergency messaging system could help the country in times of crisis. Instead, the UK government has taken the unprecedented step of asking mobile companies to send an alert to everyone in the UK telling them to heed the new nationwide lockdown rules. These messages arrive late, are easier to ignore, and open the door to phishing compared to a proper cell broadcast system.



The NHS publishes a call for a volunteer army looking for 250,000 people to help. The service is supported by GoodSAM and the Royal Voluntary Service and is run as a single service across England.



Sky reports that 750,000 volunteers have signed up to support the NHS.



The NHS announces a new plan to build a datastore that aggregates COVID-19 health data. Microsoft, Google, Palantir, Faculty and Amazon will assist in the development of the datastore and the processing of the data.



NHS publishes information about the dataset for shielded patients who are being asked to completely isolate for 12 weeks while receiving government support.



Government launched a new service for businesses to volunteer support with Coronavirus.


April 2020


The NHS release a Coronavirus Status Checker service which, in accordance with the Government Digital Service (GDS) style guide style guide does not ask for the user’s gender or sex, despite this being of clinical relevance.



Foxglove, a tech justice start-up, submitted requests under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, asking for publication of the data-sharing agreements with Microsoft, Google, Palantir, Faculty and Amazon, as well as ‘data protection impact assessments,’ which assess the risks to fundamental rights of such deals.


The government announces a new NHS app for contact tracing. According to Matt Hancock: “All data will be handled according to the highest ethical and security standards, and would only be used for NHS care and research, and we won’t hold it any longer than it��s needed. And as part of our commitment to transparency we’ll be publishing the source code, too.”


The Guardian has seen documents about the NHS datastore which appear to show the project includes large volumes of data pertaining to individuals, including protected health information, Covid-19 test results, the contents of people’s calls to the NHS health advice line 111 and clinical information about those in intensive care.

A Whitehall source told the Guardian they were alarmed at the “unprecedented” amounts of confidential health information being swept up in the project, which they said was progressing at alarming speed and with insufficient regard for privacy, ethics or data protection.



Continuing reports of large errors in the shielded patient list, including the inclusion of people who are dead and the exclusion of people who are at risk. GPs report that some people are being sent out of date and misleading advice.



According to The Guardian a government document labelled “draft – not yet approved” suggests ministers might be given the ability to order “de-anonymisation” to identify people who use the coronavirus app from their smartphones



Public Health England and NHSX release a new open-source coronavirus dashboard built to the Gov.UK design system. This replaces a previous dashboard built with proprietary software. The data in early releases is incorrect and the new version removes open data feeds used by others, especially in the UK regions.

Sources: and


The Information Commissioner’s Office (the public body responsible for FOI), seemingly announced that it was relaxing or allowing the suspension of FOI enforcement for the duration of the crisis.

Source: Foxglove


The independent Ada Lovelace Institute publishes a rapid evidence review on the technical considerations and societal implications

How not to use tech in a pandemic - a timeline of the UK’s response
Tags Coronavirus, Technology, UK, Politics
Type Google Doc
Published 19/11/2020, 04:01:09


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